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Kerner Plus 40 Symposium
March 4, 2008, Volume 54, No. 24

Identifying the Continuing Disparities: The Mission of the Commission Needs to be Completed


Former President Bill Clinton delivered the opening address of the “Kerner Plus 40” Symposium last Thursday in Irvine Auditorium. Sponsored by Penn’s Center for Africana Studies and Annenberg School for Communication and by the Institute for Advanced Journalism Studies at North Carolina A&T University, “Kerner Plus 40” marks the 40th anniversary of the 1968 report.

President Clinton thanked Penn President Amy Gutmann for her work “to expand diversity and access for talented students here at Penn” and he thanked his longtime friend Mary Frances Berry, whose article on the current state of America 40 years after the Kerner Commission he said he read with great interest. “I want to thank her because of the work she did as the chair of the Commission on Civil Rights when I was president,” he added.

The Kerner Commission report took place, when he was an undergraduate at Georgetown. He said, “I remember still the searing impact of the Kerner Commission’s conclusion that we were ‘moving towards two societies, one black, one white, separate and unequal’ had, but still the political will to act on it could not be mustered, because of the heartbreak and division and anger of the country. And of course 1968 was one of the most tumultuous years of the 20th century for the United States. It ended in the election of a new president determined to take a new direction.”

“Forty years later, a lot of good things have happened. A lot of the people that made those good things happen, were the people who in their youth, embraced the spirit and the substance of the Kerner Commission. There are more African- American politicians, journalists, educators, corporate leaders and cultural icons than ever before. There is a level of communication, interaction and genuine community that did not exist 40 years ago. And I frankly think the dramatic increase in diversity in the United States, which you can see with just a glance around the crowd today, has helped us to move closer to one America at least in the minds and hearts of those with the space to make conscious movement.” 

“So I will close with this thought. The whole world today is in a struggle between competing forces that drive us together and take us apart. As a function of our interdependence we cannot escape each other. Our interdependence makes us more vulnerable to terror and more able to enjoy the most colossal feast of interconnections that human beings have ever experienced. Our interdependence makes it possible for us to work together to generate wealth and opportunity.  But if we continue on the same energy course we will also interdependently burn the planet up for our children and grandchildren.  And our interdependence means that we all make money as a result of each other’s activity, but when the rewards to capital and education so outweigh the rewards to labor that if you have the wrong government policies, you’re going to actually crush people who are low on the education and capital scale and high on the labor capacity scale, you’re going to have all the problems the Kerner Commission talked about. And the last thing I want to say about it is, we should not have to have a riot in the streets to do the right things. We should not punish people for being law-abiding citizens by ignoring their problems.  And so, I will just close with this. It happens that if we think about the big things, how to make the world’s interdependence, which we cannot reverse, a positive, not a negative force. It will lead us to the right things.”

  Tukufu Zuberi (left) and DeWayne Wickham (right) interviewed President Clinton after his address.

To download a transcript of the address, click here.

To watch the video of the entire opening address, see www.kernerplus40.org.

Related: New Book: Kerner Plus 40 Report Assesses Racial Progress in America Since 1968 Kerner Commission Report


Almanac - March 4, 2008, Volume 54, No. 24